Social Democrats (Ireland)

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Social Democrats
Na Daonlathaithe Sóisialta
LeaderHolly Cairns
Deputy leaderCian O'Callaghan
General managerMary Callaghan
ChairpersonSíle Ní Dhubhghaill[1]
Vice-chairAngela Flynn[1]
Founded15 July 2015 (2015-07-15)
Headquarters28 South Frederick St, Dublin
Membership (2021)Increase +2,000[2]
IdeologySocial democracy[3]
Political positionCentre-left[4]
Colours  Purple
Dáil Éireann
6 / 160
Local government
22 / 949

The Social Democrats (Irish: Na Daonlathaithe Sóisialta)[5] are a centre-left,[4][6] social-democratic political party in Ireland.[3] Led by Holly Cairns, the party was launched on 15 July 2015 by three independent TDs, Catherine Murphy, and Róisín Shortall, and Stephen Donnelly. It promotes the Nordic model[7] and pro-European views.[4]


2015–2019: Foundation and early elections[edit]

The Social Democrats was established with a co-leadership arrangement between its three founding members. Róisín Shortall is a former Labour Party TD and former Minister of State at the Department of Health. She resigned from the role and from Labour in September 2012, citing lack of support and the lack of an explanation from then-Minister for Health James Reilly concerning his controversial decision to locate a new primary care centre in his own constituency.[8] Catherine Murphy was successively a member of the Workers' Party, Democratic Left and the Labour Party before being elected as an independent TD in 2005. Stephen Donnelly first entered politics as an independent TD in the 2011 general election, having previously worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company. Both Murphy and Donnelly were members of the Technical Group in the 31st Dáil, with Murphy having served as its Chief Whip.

The party ran fourteen candidates in the 2016 general election, including its three incumbent TDs, former Labour Party Senator James Heffernan, and county councillors Gary Gannon and Cian O'Callaghan.[9] Their three incumbent TDs were re-elected, but none of their other candidates were elected.

In May 2016, the party formed a technical group within the Dáil with the Green Party.[10][11]

On 5 September 2016, Stephen Donnelly resigned as joint leader and left the party, stating that he was doing so "with great sadness, having vested so much together with my parliamentary colleagues, Catherine and Roisin, a small core team and many volunteers across the country, into the establishment of the Social Democrats over the last 20 months", but referring to his relationship with his fellow leaders, that "some partnerships simply don't work".[12] On 2 February 2017, he joined Fianna Fáil.[13]

2019 local and European elections[edit]

The Social Democrats contested their first European Parliament elections in May 2019, with councillor Gary Gannon running for election in the Dublin constituency.[14] Gannon received 5.6% of the first-preference votes, finishing 6th out of 19 candidates in the first count. He was eliminated on the 14th count. The party did not contest the other Irish constituencies of Midlands-North-West or South at this election.

The party also contested their first local elections in May 2019. The Social Democrats put forward 58 candidates for seats on local councils. 55% of the candidates were women, making it the second highest percentage of female candidates put forward among all political parties.[15] 19 of the 58 candidates were elected, more than trebling the party's representation in local government.[16] Ellie Kisyombe, a Malawi-born asylum seeker running for the Social Democrats in Dublin's North Inner City LEA, was retained after a review of inconsistencies in her account of her asylum history and time in direct provision; following this, three members of the party's National Executive resigned.[17]

2019 by-elections and the 2020 general election[edit]

In November 2019, the party contested 3 of the 4 by-elections caused by the election of Irish TDs to the European Parliament, but did not win any seats, with their candidates all receiving between 2.5% and 4.4% of the vote.

In the 2020 general election, the party ran 20 candidates in 20 constituencies, and increased their seats to six, despite a small fall in the number of first preference votes received. Murphy and Shortall were re-elected in their constituencies, and were joined by Holly Cairns in Cork South-West, Gary Gannon in Dublin Central, Cian O'Callaghan in Dublin Bay North and Jennifer Whitmore in Wicklow. The Social Democrats finished level on seats with the Labour Party and exceeded the seats of other left-leaning parties Solidarity–People Before Profit and Independents 4 Change.[18]

Holly Cairns as leader[edit]

On 22 February 2023, Murphy and Shortall announced that they would step down as co-leaders of the Social Democrats.[19] Holly Cairns was the only candidate to put her name forward for leadership of the party, and she was announced as the new leader on 1 March.[20][21] On becoming leader, Cairns reiterated that the Social Democrats have no interest in merging with the Labour Party, which had been repeatedly suggested but rejected by the Social Democrats' party leadership.[22][23][24][25] She said that housing and Sláintecare would be red line issues for the Social Democrats in any coalition talks with any party.[26] On 4 July 2023 it was announced that Cian O'Callaghan had been appointed to the newly created role of deputy party leader.[27][28]

Elected representatives[edit]

As of the 2020 general election, the Social Democrats have six TDs.

Through 2017 and 2018, the Social Democrats recruited several sitting county councillors, including Jennifer Whitmore (Wicklow County Council), Joe Harris (Cork County Council), Dermot Looney (South Dublin County Council), Paul Mulville (Fingal County Council) and June Murphy (Cork County Council).[29][30][31] In the 2019 local elections they won 19 council seats, but by 2023 they had expanded this to 22 by recruiting three county councillors; Mary Roche (Waterford County Council), Eoin Ó Broin (South Dublin County Council) and Liam Quaide (Cork County Council).[32][33][34]

In 2023, Galway City Councillor Owen Hanley resigned as a councillor and as a party member, following allegations made against him on social media.[35]

Ideology and policies[edit]

At the party's launch, its three TDs stated their support for the Nordic model of social democracy, backed the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the Official Secrets Act, and stated their opposition to domestic water charges.[36][37][38] The party's manifesto for the 2016 general election listed commitments to "three core areas":

  • Policies that support a healthy, inclusive and progressive society
  • Policies that ensure a strong, stable and vibrant economy, and support Ireland's SMEs with the same vigour that is applied to the multinational sector
  • Policies that make politics and government more transparent and responsive to public, rather than party need[39]

It supports Irish membership of the European Union. The party is also in favour of a directly elected mayor of Dublin.[40]

Health policies[edit]

One of the party's core policies is Sláintecare, an Irish national health service. Sláintecare is a fully costed plan for a universal, single-tier public health service that would join up health and social care in the Republic of Ireland and be free at the point of use.[41] Sláintecare was developed as the result of a cross-Party Oireachtas Committee chaired by the Social Democrats' Róisín Shortall, which sought to examine the issue of healthcare in Ireland. The party's Sláintecare policy plan also includes (but is not limited to): a legal entitlement to homecare packages for older people, significantly reducing prescription charges and lowering costs for medicines, providing access to basic procedures at a local level, and improved funding for mental health, including counselling, community programmes, and adult mental health teams.[42]

Housing policies[edit]

The Social Democrats are in favour of universal access to affordable housing.[43][44] In May 2017, the party published the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill to eliminate loopholes to the vacant site levy and increase penalties for developers engaged in land hoarding.[45] In January 2018 the party called for a nationwide rent freeze.[46] In December 2019 the party proposed a motion of no-confidence in housing minister Eoghan Murphy.[47]

In their 2020 manifesto, the party called for building 100,000 homes over a five year period to be delivered by a new housing agency, and pledged to end homelessness.[48]

Economic and worker's rights policies[edit]

In their 2020 manifesto, the party said it would ban exploitative work contracts, encourage union membership and protect younger workers.[48] In their October 2023 alternative budget, they advocated for a new tax on assets valued at over 1 million euro and an increase of the minimum wage by 2 euro, to €13.30 per hour.[49]

Social policies[edit]

The Social Democrats have published legislation on equal access and non-religious discrimination in schools,[50] extended unpaid parental leave[51] and greater minimum notice periods for residential tenancies.[52] The party called for a yes vote in the Referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment on 25 May 2018.[53] At its 2018 National Conference, the party became one of the few in Ireland – along with People Before Profit – to formally adopt a position calling for repeal of anti-sex work legislation, and support decriminalisation of sex work, in line with the New Zealand model. It also supports an end to conversion therapy.[54]

Education policies[edit]

In their 2020 manifesto, the party committed to making primary school education free, reducing third level fees and expanding the SUSI grant system.[48]

Transport and climate policies[edit]

The party's 2020 manifesto vowed to build more cycle lanes, cut public transport fares and introduce a dedicated public transport policing unit. On climate policies, they called for banning fracking and pledged to meet the targets in the Paris Agreement.[48]

Drug policies[edit]

The party supports the decriminalisation of drugs for personal consumption. The Social Democrats instead want to take a health led approach to drugs, such as by tackling the socio-economic and mental health factors that pre-dispose people to substance abuse. It also advocates for better funding for drug treatment and health services, as well as improved public education around drugs.[55]


The party has called for the establishment of an independent anti-corruption agency in Ireland to tackle white-collar crime and corruption in the corporate world and political spheres.[56][57]

Foreign affairs[edit]

In November 2023, the Social Democrats put forward a Dáil motion seeking to expel the Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, and to place economic sanctions on Israel amidst the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.[58] The motion was voted down by the government.[59] Two months later, the party put forward a motion to back South Africa's case against Israel in the International Court of Justice; the government put forward a counter-motion, which passed in its place.[60]



Name Portrait Period Constituency
Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shortall and Stephen Donnelly
Social Democrats (Ireland) Leadership, 2016.jpg
2015–2016 Kildare North, Dublin North West and Wicklow
Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall
Róisín Shortall TD and Catherine Murphy TD cropped.jpg
2016–2023 Kildare North and Dublin North West
Holly Cairns
Holly Cairns, April 2023 (headshot).jpg
2023–present Cork South-West

Deputy leader[edit]

Name Portrait Period Constituency
Cian O'Callaghan
Cian O'Callaghan 2020.jpg
2023–present Dublin Bay North

Election results[edit]

Dáil Éireann[edit]

Election Co-leaders 1st pref
% Seats ± Government
2016 Catherine Murphy
Róisín Shortall
Stephen Donnelly
64,094 3.0 (#7)
3 / 158
Steady Opposition
2020[61] Catherine Murphy
Róisín Shortall
63,397 2.9 (#6)
6 / 160
Increase 3 Opposition

Local elections[edit]

Election 1st pref
% Seats +/–
2019 39,644 2.3 (#6)
19 / 949

European Parliament[edit]

Election 1st pref
% Seats +/–
2019 20,331 1.2 (#8)
0 / 13


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External links[edit]